Ingenues for an Old World

By Arnold, Gary | Insight on the News, February 5, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Ingenues for an Old World

Arnold, Gary, Insight on the News

Maybe its target audience was a trifle overspecialized and partial to a fault, but Waiting to Exhale emerged as the "women's picture" of choice in the new year. The popularity of this doting film version of author Terry McMillan's best-seller turned the remake of Sabrina into a dressy also-ran. Yet both movies suffer from a too-solemn approach to romance. And the current Sabrina lacks the element that made the original so winning: its leading lady.

Sabrina Fairchild is a Cinderella heroine. The original 1954 version, directed by Billy Wilder, was calculated to showcase the fresh, exquisite Audrey Hepburn, still new to Hollywood, despite having won the 1953 Academy Award for best actress in Roman Holiday. As the ingenuous Sabrina, she grew more endearing while outgrowing her girlish crush on playboy David Larrabee.

The new Sabrina has it a little easier than her predecessor. She doesn't flirt with suicide while still obsessed with the unworthy David. Director Sydney Pollack admits that this episode, invented by Wilder and Ernest Lehman while adapting Samuel Taylor's play for the screen, struck him as "inimitable." Says Pollack, "I couldn't envision tossing off that situation as nonchalantly as they did."

Probably not. And that difficulty raises certain questions about the way movie conventions change, traditions deteriorate and personalities cover dubious bets. Then, too, directors who can sustain the Ernst Lubitsch-Preston Sturges-Billy Wilder tradition of affectionate skepticism about romance remain a rarity. Sabrina is almost as heavyhearted as Exhale, despite nominally frivolous trappings. It's not difficult to pinpoint the remake's crucial shortcoming: Leading lady Julia Ormond is not a uniquely enchanting camera subject and cinematic presence.

The truth is, Wilder was exceptionally lucky to work with Hepburn at that particular point in her career. There was a mixture of gaiety, ardor and delicacy about her that allowed enviable latitude to directors of romantic comedy. Wilder contributed one of the wittiest summaries of her appeal: "She's a wispy, thin little thing, but you're really in the presence of somebody when you see that girl. Not since Greta Garbo has there been anything like it, with the possible exception of Ingrid Bergman.... She's like a salmon swimming upstream.... After so many drive-in waitresses in is class - somebody who went to school, can spell and possibly play the piano."

I happened to be present when Scott Rudin, one of the producers of the new Sabrina, revealed the choice for leading lady. The setting was a press junket for Nobody's Fool, and the name Julia Ormond left a decidedly underwhelming impression.

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